West Wing 1×05: The Crackpots and These Women

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Anthony Drazen | Aired: 10/20/1999]

There was a time in my life – astonishing as it may seem – during which I didn’t really care much as to how much depth or character development the average television show had. Nor had I much motivation to pick individual episodes apart for story details or thematic relevance. And I had little reason to pound out multiple reviews detailing my personal opinions of these episodes ands post them on websites where people would skim through my numerous paragraphs of text, all the while wondering, “Doesn’t this guy have a life?”

During this obviously misguided period of my existence (which I’ll dub “childhood”), my chief priority every time I plopped down in front of that flickering metal box was to have fun. I didn’t quite know how to describe the fun I was after, but I wanted it. And I got it. (Except when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on. Sorry, that show always struck me as boring.)

Now that I’m older, and allegedly wiser, you’d suppose my tastes have changed. But they haven’t, really. When I’m watching a show – any show – I still want to have fun. But now, I’m more adept at noticing the little details in the shows I watch, which can often be just as entertaining as the big picture. In short, I’ve become more skilled at discovering fun.

Now, based on the premise alone, you probably wouldn’t expect a show like The West Wing to put an emphasis on fun. Just how much amusement can be derived from watching characters who spend most of their days balancing budgets and debating tax cuts? But there, as the saying goes, is the rub. The West Wing may sound like a straightforwardly serious drama, but its setting is often just a backdrop for pure, energetic enjoyment.

“The Crackpots and These Women” (god, even the title is fun) is a remarkably subversive episode that just how capable this show is at being purely entertaining without tipping over into unapologetic wackiness. The episode in question takes place on “Big Block of Cheese Day”, a day set aside by Leo for the administration to focus on helping some of the more atypical organizations in the society. Among such clients: A representative of Space Command asking for more intensive study in the field of UFOs, and a group of animal-rights activists who want to build a wolves-only highway, prompted by the death of a grey wolf named “Pluey”.

In lesser hands, this story would be little more than an exercise in silliness. But Sorkin wisely avoids this trap by centralizing the concept with the show’s most grounded character. Leo’s practicality attunes him to the more minor projects the White House can concentrate on – instead of planning complicated, grandiose ventures, he sees it as beneficial to lend an ear to more commonplace and unusual requests. (And these so-called unusual requests are more commonplace than one might think – who, at some point in their life, hasn’t supported an idea that many thought unusual, or even ridiculous?)

It’s a remarkable melding of pragmatism and idealism. By shining a spotlight on the perceived oddballs of the world, Leo shows a remarkable aptitude for helping the everyman, while providing a mouthpiece for those who up till now have kept silent. The younger staffers may joke about Leo’s devotion to a seemingly strange ritual, particularly when said ritual was inspired by a gargantuan slab of dairy product. But the seriousness and delicacy with which Sorkin presents the concept makes this an excellent case for The West Wing’s talent of mixing the various ingredients of liberalism into a fine porridge – not too hot, and not too cold.

Notice also the deftness with which the show personifies its viewpoints. Bartlet and Toby clash horns in this episode, for the first of many times. Bartlet’s philosophy – work on the matters he can, and avoid those he can’t – is countered here by Toby’s insistence to seize any opportunity. But their quarrel goes beyond mere schematics. Both men may be optimistic, but both are also fiercely uncompromising in their opinions. The increasingly heated argument between the two of them shows that tensions between men on the same side can be just as intense as tensions between those of two opposing parties – perhaps even more so.

Bartlet’s anger has a personal edge, too, and the motives behind it will last long past the closing credits of this episode. “I only get mad because I know you’re right a lot of the times,” he tells Toby as the two attempt to reconcile. Toby, more than anyone else on Bartlet’s staff, is willing to sacrifice personal pleasures for the sake of what he feels to be the greater good, even taking individual action in certain cases. The point will first become clear in “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10] when he arranges an unauthorized funeral for a Vietnam vet, and will occur in several other forms throughout the series. Toby’s moral center is difficult to overcome, a fact that Bartlet, even in his first year in office, knows all too well.

In addition to laying ground for future Toby/Bartlet conflicts, “The Crackpots and these Women” also subtly sets up an arc for Josh that will itself play out in the future. In the opening episodes, Josh often comes off as an arrogant and self-righteous (though loveable!) jerk. This trait of his sometimes works to entertaining effect, as with his denouncing of Mary Marsh in the “Pilot” [1×01], and sometimes does not, as seen by his non-developing relationship with Mandy. Here, though, for the first time, it works in the way of serious drama.

When Josh receives an unexpected “calling card” from the NSC guaranteeing him safety in the event of a nuclear attack, it puts his overbearing, think-it-and-say-it attitude at bay. Often one to toot his own horn in the presence of his friends, Josh is surprised – and a little nervous – to learn that he is in fact the only one of the senior staffers to earn this privilege, and that he must keep it a secret from his friends. Josh has constantly celebrated his position of responsibility – but is he truly ready to accept everything that responsibility entails?

What starts as a brief affair with a morality complex soon takes a more disturbing turn. Josh’s concern of being singled out for protection is augmented by memories of his sister, who died in a house fire that he himself escaped. Once before, he was spared a danger that claimed the life of a loved one – now, can he make use an opportunity that may offer the same outcome?

Much of Josh’s predicament here is explored to greater effect in “Noel” [2×10], which draws several parallels to this episode: A psychiatrist named Stanley, a key scene that reveals emotions through music – and a surprisingly disturbing look into Josh’s subconscious. “Noel” [2×10] is more complex – and as a result, more intriguing – than this emotional crux of “The Crackpots and These Women”, but this episode’s reveal of Josh’s fallacy makes his dramatic turn in that episode feel more natural and anticipated.

Josh ultimately declines the offer to join the higher-ups in a protective bunker, choosing instead to stick with his friends through any potential disaster. Bartlet respects his decision, and not only because of the loyalty Josh displays. In a speech he gives at the end of the episode, Bartlet makes it clear that he wants to keep the world free of nuclear war, and filled with ever-growing advancements. This speech distinguishes itself emotionally by being structured as a sendoff Jed makes for his college-bound daughter, and, thanks to its bright and buoyant nature, is perfectly in tune with the show’s freshman season.

“The Crackpots and These Women” is, in fact, probably the closest any episode comes to demonstrating what the first season is about: Pure idealism, filtered through the minds of like-minded people whose disagreements only betray a sense of loyalty that draws them even closer.

Oh… and fun. This season loves to be fun.

 


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ The basketball game. I love how Bartlet brings his clever political tactics to the ball court.
+ The continuity reference to the gun bill from “Five Votes Down” [1×04].
+ The First Lady’s Ouija Board.
+ None of the staffers generating much excitement over Bartlet cooking dinner, until he reminds them who he is.
+ Bonnie the Grizzly Bear! Say it a few times, it gets funnier.

– Bartlet’s little speech about “these women” feels out-of-place and tacked on.


Foreshadowing

* Josh utters the immortal line, “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” This phrase plays a key role in the memorable final scene of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19].
* In his toast at the end of this episode, Bartlet announces his goal to make college affordable to a majority of students by the time his four-year term is up. We see his team tackle the problem directly in “College Kids” [4×03].


[Score]

A-

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14 thoughts on “West Wing 1×05: The Crackpots and These Women”

  1. [Note: MrB posted this comment on January 19, 2014.]

    A big theme in US presidential history is the idea of temperament.

    There is a famous line about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was a second rate intellect with a first rate temperament. We know that Jed Bartlet’s intellect is absolutely second to none – Nobel prizewinner and all. Here, Toby’s mention of demons and better nature is referring to Bartlet’s temperament. For once a 1st rate intellect and a 1st rate temperament.

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  2. [Note: Callie posted this comment on January 20, 2014.]

    (Okay, let me preface this by stating I started watching this series because I saw it was going to be reviewed on here…)

    The speech Bartlet and Leo give about ‘these women’ isn’t just tacked on, it’s pretty darn demeaning. After watching this episode, I couldn’t get over that stupid speech and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. There are several plot points in the first season that are very demeaning towards women that typically don’t bother me. There is also occasionally subversion of the theme.

    I think the thing that really gets to me about this specific speech is how condescending (and in a way objectifying) it is toward women. President Bartlet specifically sets this up to be about his colleagues, but only women are mentioned, no men. They talk about things that they would never mention about men–Mandy holding her own in a fight against a man? If that was another man I really don’t think there would be any ticker tape parade over it. CJ being CAPABLE something to mention… *arches brow* And the lovely adding on of Cathy, Donna, and Margaret, the female characters who don’t even have any characteristics at this point (okay, Donna does–she was real from the first episode).

    Also, there is NO WAY that little pot of chili could feed that many people. 😀

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  3. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 21, 2014.]

    The speech does get on my nerves, but the awkwardly sexist stuff is mostly confined to the show’s early episodes. Mandy is an example of a female character being poorly-written (she remains my least favorite major character on the whole show, due to her one-note personality and overall uselessness), but Donna gets a lot of good development as the show goes on.

    I think you’ll like CJ’s arc, actually. Rest assured that after a while, she in no way resembles an objectified character.

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  4. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 27, 2015.]

    See, I disagree with the commentors here in that I think CJ starts out awesome, but I’ll digress.

    Not much to say here– it’s funny! And Cj and Josh talking about smallpox and nuclear weapons is sweet. Mandy’s quip about eating the two tons of cheese is the best line, imo, but it’s all good.

    Shout-out to Toby, who went to CCNY. Suck it, Baruch!

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  5. [Note: Jeeshadow posted this comment on August 23, 2015.]

    Something I noticed is that Josh mentions while visiting his therapist that he has the Ave Maria stuck in his head. I just found that interesting considering what will end up triggering his PTSD.

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  6. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 5, 2016.]

    Yes, that’s the reasoning I was looking for in that speech bugging me.

    I also think, introduction with the treadmill aside, CJ is pretty awesome already. I mean, that scene with Josh, wow.

    I know this is an ensemble show, but I have a hard time seeing anyone but Josh as the main character at this point.

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  7. [Note: Unkinhead posted this comment on March 5, 2016.]

    I wonder actually who technically has the most screen time. I think it’s a pretty even toss up between Josh, Toby, and C.J. the latter seems to be really focused on the most when she’s present but also can be surprisingly absent otherwise.

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  8. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 5, 2016.]

    Seeing Josh as the main character may actually be a good thing, once you get to the last few seasons. Unless your perspective shifts by then, which it probably will.

    (Sam was originally meant to be the lead character before Martin Sheen was cast as Bartlet. I’m guessing you’re not upset that things turned out differently.)

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  9. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 5, 2016.]

    Maybe if he was the main character they would have made him less dumb and have less of a hero complex? Probably not. So no, not upset.

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  10. [Note: BK posted this comment on March 14, 2016.]

    Callie, I so agree – I was shocked at how in a show where people of both genders are regularly capable without comment on gender (except poor Ainsley who is constantly commented on via gender) that this speech made it in. It was also MEGA jarring that they put CJ and Mandy in with the administrative staff. They all have worth and value as people but organizationally that was really demeaning to CJ and Mandy (although Jeremy’s larger point stands that Mandy is poorly written but that’s another issue for another day:). Anyways thanks for commenting on this and thank goodness that this is overall an jarring aberration of blatant condensation via earnest “praise”.

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  11. [Note: BK posted this comment on March 14, 2016.]

    I so agree with you Jeremy that Leo’s incredibly insightful practicality is a thing of beauty in this episode. It looks like its going to be a goofy episode, which in and of itself is fun, but it was so neat how the episode credibly unfolded as away for staff to be impacted by every day people’s concerns and “passion projects”. I also thought that even though the concerns were “fringe” in nature, the passion and dedication of the people mirrored the intensity and focus of the White House staff in a nice mirror set up. And lastly, just plain old fun to see Nick Offerman in an early so fitting role like this.

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  12. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 15, 2016.]

    I am always comforted by the fact that Nick Offerman has a habit of appearing (however briefly) in so many my favorite shows.

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  13. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on September 14, 2016.]

    Well, I watched this episode pretty recently, and I really like this show already. I guess my only problem would be the very one-sidedness of the political conflicts (again, not because I’m a raging conservative, but it would be more interesting if President Bartlet’s staff pointed out that the Republicans might have a point in some areas once in a while), and that speech at the end was overly sentimental. Other than that, this is quality television. I actually like Sorkin’s writing style, and I…..don’t mind Sam? Plus, Josh and Leo make it worth watching alone.

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